The Fire Lily Festival was all anyone had talked about on Ember Island for the last three days. There was a beach party, with huge bonfires, roasted food, and merchants selling spiced candies and nuts. Fireworks said to rival a coronation were going to be set off at midnight. They watched it all from the balcony of the Fire Lord's abandoned summer home.
"It's not fair!" Sokka lamented for the fifth time. "I can smell the meat!"
"The Boy in the Iceberg has been running for a week solid, Sokka," Suki soothed, stroking his arm. "We'll be too obvious if we go running around the party."
"Besides," Toph exclaimed, her milky eyes wide, "I have a better idea. Have you ever played Ten Minutes in Heaven?"
"What's that?" Katara asked.
"Weeeeell," Toph said. "It involves a cup of names and a closet, and—"
"We can't play that," Zuko said.
"Sure we can!" Suki joined in. "You've got plenty of closets!" She clutched Sokka's arm excitedly.
"No, I mean… we can't play that," he repeated.
"How do you play?" Sokka turned to Suki, ignoring Zuko, his curious expression mirroring her exuberance for the idea, and she screwed up her eyebrows at him. "What? We don't have closets in the South; we keep our clothes in trunks… And trust me, no one wants to play Ten Minutes in a Trunk..."
"Especially if it's Sokka's," Katara added.
"It might be an okay game." Aang lithely unfolded his legs and stood.
He eyed Katara briefly, but he quickly looked away again. She had carefully avoided being alone with him since the kiss he had forced on her at the play, but this might be a good opportunity to change the awkwardness between them… or really ramp it up. Life was a gamble.
Toph was already on her dirty feet, padding back into the house. By the time the others crowded in, she had found a cup, ripped several strips of moldy paper off the wall, and selected, what Zuko knew to be, the smallest closet in the entire house.
"Girls pick!" she cried, handing slips of paper to the guys. "Write your names down and put 'em in the cup. Then we'll all take a ride on the Fate Wagon!" Sokka was the first to add his name, quickly followed by Aang, and Zuko, looking apprehensive, reluctantly scrawled his name out in his elegant script and dropped it into the cup as well.
"Since it was my idea," Toph decreed, "I'll pick first." She stuck her grubby fingers into the cup and pulled out a name. She flipped it toward Katara.
"It says Aang… So now what?" Katara frowned when Aang groaned, but Toph didn't seem offended, appearing to relish the Avatar's discomfort.
"Them are the rules, Twinkletoes. Into the closet!" Toph practically shoved him into the dark interior; she might even have snatched him back by his toga when he tried to escape. Suki quickly pounced on the door, latching it from the outside, and then turned over an hour glass.
"When the sand reaches… here," she pointed out the mark, "they get to come out."
"Well…" Katara didn't seem to understand the point of the game. "What are they supposed to do in the closet until then?"
"Anything we want!" came the boisterous, muffled shout from inside. Katara blushed.
"But I don't want to do that, Toph!"
"Don't kiss and tell, Twinkletoes! Now pucker up!"
The door to the closet shook, and Aang cried out. "Aack! The door is locked! Somebody let me out!"
"Hey! No Airbending!" Toph's maniacal laughter rebounded from behind the door, sounding hollow and eerie, and then silence followed... Well, silence punctuated by a young man's whimpers.
"Maybe we shouldn't have played this," Katara said.
"Oh, they'll be fine. My turn!" Suki put her hand into the cup and pulled out a slip of paper. Before she had even unfolded it all the way, she gleefully announced, "Sokka! What a coincidence."
"Yay!" Sokka cheered but then frowned. "But wait. We only get ten minutes?"
Suki was still trying to explain that, well, yeah… here to Sokka when the hour glass ran down to the established line, and Zuko stood to mercifully unlock the door. Aang immediately fell out onto the floor, trying to right all of his clothes, looking like a frightened lizard mouse. Toph followed him out looking smug. Suki had Sokka in the closet before Toph had managed to even sit back down.
"I guess we don't need to lock it," Zuko said.
"We're lucky there's not a lock on the inside," Katara pointed out.
"It's your turn, Katara." Aang said, reluctantly handing her the cup.
It didn't take a genius to do the math, and her gaze furtively shifted to Zuko as she dug out the last slip of paper. She unfolded it, the 'Zu' sitting confidently on her tongue ready for enunciation, and then she blinked.
They really hadn't thought this game out very well. Suki must have been doing the math, too. Katara rolled her eyes, wondering what would have happened if Suki had been truthful, and then she shuddered slightly, afraid Toph might have just bullied them into the closet together anyway. She sighed, irritably; they could always have worked on their arm wrestling.
"Zuko," she finally said and wadded up the paper.
She stared at his melancholy expression for a minute and then shrugged. When ten minutes were up, they had to open the door and drag Sokka out.
"We get to go again right?" he asked as he stumbled into the room, pulling Suki behind him.
"Into the closet!" Toph yelled, shoving Katara and Zuko in with a firm hand on each of their backs. "And no bending!" She thought better of that and added, "Unless, of course, you're bending on each other."
Katara lost her footing, falling into a wall of long robes and getting tangled up and turned around in the sudden darkness that descended on them. An ominous click announced the beginning of their ten minutes. Startled, she pushed her way back out of the robes and tripped over something else, falling and clutching at whatever she could reach. Two hands caught under her elbows, and she was swiftly pulled up against Zuko's chest.
"Easy," he said. "Watch your step."
"I can't watch anything in here." This close to Zuko, Katara's knees went slack, and she leaned heavily on him. "There's something in the way." She grunted as she tried to right herself. "I can't get my feet under me."
"The closet is full of shoes. Sokka and Suki probably messed everything up."
He tucked a leg around Katara's and made a sweeping motion with his foot, trying to kick the obstacles out of the way so Katara could stand. She thought that maybe his hands lingered under her elbows a little longer than necessary. As she took a step back, she groped the wall for orientation, quickly losing her bearings again.
Her palm found the wood of the door frame; moved left, found wall paper; moved left again, found cloth stretched over angled hangers; moved down a row of similar robes, until she pressed her hand against a robe stretched over something broad and firm… Puzzled, she brought her other hand up to push at it, her fingers kneading the contours, trying to give it shape in her mind.
Zuko coughed. "That's me."
She jerked her hands away and forced her eyes wide open, trying to distinguish the faintest source of light. "Bend a flame," she whispered.
"We're not supposed to bend."
"Well, what are we supposed to do?"
There was a suspicious pause from the other side of the closet before Zuko cleared his throat and answered.
"Traditionally, we're supposed to make out." Katara felt a sudden heat burn her cheeks. "But, apparently, I'm not your first choice to be in here with, so… I could tell you jokes, I guess."
"You're terrible at telling jokes. And what do you mean first choice?" She suddenly remembered what she had done when she pulled out the paper with Sokka's name it—how she had blinked, rolled her eyes, and sighed before calling out Zuko's name. "Oh. That's not… I mean, I wasn't…" she huffed, annoyed by how the words tripped her up. "I didn't actually get your name."
Instead of his normal, resigned moodiness, Katara thought she detected a note of interest in his tone.
"Well… I had to. Or, well, Suki had to. She lied first. I got Sokka's name."
Zuko snorted. "I told Toph we couldn't play this game… at least not without rigging it."
"You would basically have to take turns making out with me and Aang, and Sokka would have to make out with Suki and Toph—and I'm pretty sure he's only going to make out with Suki, which means Toph would have to make out with just me and Aang, too. You would be swapping guys back and forth all night, and that would get awkward, so we'd eventually pair off, and you'd spend all night making out with..."
"Making out with who?"
"Who would you want to make out with?"
Now the suspicious pause was on her side.
"Um." Her heart was pounding so loudly that she thought she could actually see the force of it rippling the darkness in front of her. "Things are kind of… weird, I guess… with Aang, right now. He kind of kissed me during the play, and I'm not sure it would be a good idea to make out with him."
"Oh." Zuko was quiet for a minute. "So you can't make out with Sokka, and you won't make out with Aang. That doesn't leave you with a lot of choices."
A queer feeling coursed through Katara's core, twisting up low in her body. "I guess it doesn't."
Distracted, she shifted her footing, and her ankle rolled on another shoe, pitching her forward. She thudded into Zuko again, but this time, instead of grabbing her elbows, he slipped his arms around her waist. When she tried to push off from his chest, his hold tightened.
"Maybe you should just stay where you are. It's safer, and you keep ending up here, anyway."
Katara's mouth suddenly went dry. "Um. Good… good thinking." She could feel him tracing circles against her lower back with his long fingers.
"You know." Zuko took a deep breath. "We're not exactly honoring the spirit of the game." He leaned back against the wall, drawing Katara with him, settling her more firmly against his body.
"The spirit? You mean," she swallowed her heart back down into her chest where it belonged, "you think we should…"
She felt him shrug. "Just to say we played it right."
"Oh. Right. I guess… then, we should probably… I mean, I don't want to look like a spoilsport."
"We wouldn't want to disappoint Toph."
"No—" Katara's breath hitched in her throat. "We certainly wouldn't want to disappoint Toph."
Zuko's hands slowly slid up Katara's back, and she shivered at the trail of warmth they left through her thinner Fire Nation clothes. Over her shoulders, his fingers brushed against her neck. As he pinpointed her face, strong hands came up to cradle both sides of her jaw. His thumbs found her lower lip, caressing it until she had to bite it to banish the itch he left against the sensitive skin.
"Now I know why Toph wanted to play this," he said, "she's got the advantage in here… Strategic."
"I don't think you're doing too badly," she whispered around the pads of his thumbs. "You found my mouth."
"Not entirely." He leaned down as he lifted Katara's face. Zuko's lips brushed against hers tentatively, hovering and orienting for a moment, before he pressed firmly.
Katara closed her eyes, immediately dizzy, and she grabbed onto his sleeves for support. He released her face and slid his arms back down, gripping her hips and pulling her to him. She moved her hands up his sleeves to his shoulders, folded her arms around his neck, and clung to him. He held her up effortlessly as their mouths worked against each other.
They broke apart, breathless, and Katara shyly rested her face against his chest. At her back, his fingers idly brushed through her hair. Katara felt a silly smile part her lips, and now, she was grateful for the darkness. Zuko was warm, and in these close quarters, his spicy scent enveloped her, wrapping around her senses the way his strong arms were wrapped around her body. She felt safe, she felt giddy… she felt guilty, she felt queasy. Heaven was a confusing place.
"It's been ten minutes, at least," he finally said. "I wonder why Sokka isn't trying to get back in here."
Katara leaned toward the door, Zuko holding her like a lifeline, and she jiggled the handle. "It's still locked."
He lifted one of his hands and rapped loudly against the wood, calling out, "Is time up?"
Katara extricated herself from Zuko's hold and started banging against the door. "Hey! Toph? Suki? Let us out! Hello? Anyone?" Taking a defeated step back, she muttered, "Where did they all go?"
Outside, a long shrill echoed and then popped.
"The Fireworks," Zuko said. "It must be midnight."
"So they just left us here?"
"Can you Waterbend the lock?"
"I didn't assume I would need my water skin in the closet, Zuko. Can you Firebend it?"
"Sure, and burn down half the house."
"Well, what are we supposed to do?" Katara waited expectantly. Zuko would figure something out; he was a problem solver. He was quiet in the long moment it took him to formulate a plan.
"Traditionally," he said, "we're supposed to make out."
Katara turned to gripe at him, but her foot rolled on another stray shoe and she stumbled. Zuko, as if he could see in the dark, caught her and braced her against his chest. This time, his hands quickly found her face, thumbs ghosting over her cheekbones.
"Or I could tell you jokes," he whispered.
"You're terrible at telling jokes."
"Then, that doesn't leave us with many choices."
"No." She drew the front of his robes into her fists. "I guess it doesn't."